Monday 29 April 2024

Good Faith

Having been founded by a man who once seconded Kevan Jones in a debate against me, but whom God has since led to Opus Dei, Compact provides the space for Stephen G. Adubato to write:

On April 8, after nearly 19 months of negotiations with university leaders, the Fordham Graduate Student Workers Union voted unanimously to strike if bargains were not carried out in “good faith.” The two-year-old union, affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, met with administrators on numerous occasions to demand improvements in their working conditions and compensation. Fordham’s stipend for graduate student workers, which starts at around $27,000 a year, is among the lowest in the nation, despite the fact that the university is located in New York—one of America’s priciest cities. This stands in stark contrast to the salaries of the university’s administrators and sports coaches—some of whom earn upwards of $600,000 a year.

Fordham is a Jesuit university that claims to stand for “the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights, and respect for the environment.” Like many such institutions, it is sometimes criticized by conservative Catholics for defying the Church’s teaching on sexuality. But Fordham is no less compromised in its fidelity to Catholic precepts on the economy. While urging others to recognize the rights of workers, the university has failed to remove the beam from its own eye.

The irony hasn’t been lost on union organizers. At a “practice strike,” one picket sign featured a drawing of a tooth next to the words “cura dentalis,” a play on the Jesuit phrase cura personalis—the care of the whole person—which the university often reminds its students it intends to foster.

Eventually, the gap between Fordham’s ideals and practices became impossible to sustain. Tania Tetlow, the university’s president, announced in late April that the administration has come to a tentative agreement with the graduate union. In the words of an announcement from the union, the agreement includes a “large increase to base stipends, increased health-care coverage, ban on [nondisclosure agreements], workload reductions, and more protections and support for international grad workers.”

As an alumnus of Fordham, I celebrate this step forward—both for the advantages it will afford the university’s graduate student workers and as a means to give credibility to its Jesuit identity. But the reality is that the current structure of the university and the ethos of its curriculum and campus culture don’t exactly lend themselves to forging just treatment of its students and workers—at least, not according to the Catholic Church’s definition of justice.

During my orientation more than 10 years ago, I was told Jesuit institutions highly value social justice, and was taught several of the major Jesuit mottos (cura personalis included), as well as about my white cisgender privilege, which I was told I needed to check at the door. I was also encouraged to get involved in the campus’ numerous clubs and activities, whose highlights included Isis, the school’s feminist club (which changed its name after Islamic State rose to power), and the Rainbow Alliance, a support group for LGBTQ students and their allies. Rainbow had been awarded the title of “the best club on campus” by the administration in 2011. Among its offerings was the annual “Queer Prom.” I was also informed that we had a Campus Ministry, which was very “open-minded,” hosting events like Ignatian Yoga in the Chapel and retreats for those who are spiritual but not religious.

Despite the vagueness of the university’s Catholic identity, I likely wouldn’t have come to find faith had I not attended Fordham. Thanks to my encounters with a small number of devout priests, professors, and classmates, I made my way across the Tiber, joining the Catholic Church in 2012.

Toward the end of my time at Fordham, I wandered into the Manhattan campus’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice, where I met a student-worker who urged me to read Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and Pope Leo XIII’s seminal social encyclical, Rerum novarum. Seeing as my theology professors were more keen on teaching the texts of Foucault and “pope of gender” Judith Butler (and trashing the papacy of Benedict XVI), I had never heard of these texts, which, according to this renegade student, were “crucial” to understanding Catholic social doctrine.

I was surprised to find out that the Church offered much more than standard “SJW” discourse with Catholic buzzwords sprinkled on top. Rather, it offered a substantial and coherent social vision quite distinct from any other I was already familiar with, and that, in fact, transcended the conventional left-right binary that dominates American political discourse. From its emphasis on the dignity of life flowed its insistence on the centrality of families and a traditional sexual ethic, as well as its ardent defense of the agency of local communities and the right of workers to organize. None of my professors dared to mention to me that among the four sins “crying to heaven for vengeance” are forms of sex definitively closed to procreation and defrauding workers of their wages … go figure.

Over time, I came to understand that Fordham’s opting to push identitarian social-justice discourses over ones more firmly rooted in the Catholic and Jesuit traditions isn’t merely emblematic of the university’s crisis of faith. It is part and parcel of the same mentality that prioritizes the university’s bottom line over its mission. Teaching poststructuralist theory and hanging rainbow flags around campus are much less demanding than paying workers adequately and fostering a culture that values family and community formation. Advocating for the “autonomous” individual, it turns out, is more cost efficient.

Recovering the religious identity of Catholic universities will mean making sure they challenge the individualistic logic of neoliberalism on the curricular and cultural levels, as well as on the administrative and fiscal ones. On the latter front, this will require a concerted effort to resist the expanding corporate mentality and top-heavy bureaucratic structures that are rapidly infecting university campuses. The graduate labor union’s victory is a small but hopeful step away from this direction.


  1. I assume this was why you made the jump rather than something you discovered afterwards.